The Cabinet of Curiosities by Paul Dowswell

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The Cabinet of Curiosities by Paul Dowswell

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Highly enjoyable historical adventure set in Prague at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor at the end of the 16th century. Pacy, with great characterisation, it's rich with wonderful historical detail. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1408800462

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When Lukas Declercq begins work as an apprentice to his uncle, a court physician to the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague, it's only after an absolutely hair-raising journey. Robbed at knifepoint and left naked and penniless, he fell in with a much more streetwise child, Etienne, who helped him blag his way across the country.

Glad of the chance to earn a living, Lukas is fascinated by this learned and fascinating court. Rudolph II suffers dreadfully from depression, but is openminded and liberal, with an enquiring nature, so Lukas encounters Jews, Muslims, Protestants and Catholics living side by side. Scientific debate is encouraged. And there is an army of alchemists beavering away. This is in stark contrast to much of Catholic Europe, in which the infamous Inquisition holds sway. And Lukas knows all about the Inquisition. It was they who arrested his father for printing seditious pamphlets, and they who condemned him to a horrific death on the wheel.

So when a Spanish delegation arrives at court he is immediately suspicious...

Paul Dowswell sure does write a super junior historical thriller. The last was Auslander, set in Nazi Germany, which I loved. This time, we're in 16th century Prague at the court of Rudolph II. Couldn't be more different, you'd think, wouldn't you? But not really. The Cabinet of Curiosities also features a central character transplanted into completely unfamiliar surroundings and separated from his parents. It also looks at persecution and intolerance - of the Inquisition and heretics instead of the Nazis and the Jews. History, perhaps, is running on a never-ending loop, trying to teach us the same lesson over and over again.

But of course, Auslander was set inside a repressive regime. The Cabinet of Curiosities is set inside a permissive regime, but it's under attack from external and malevolent forces. And Lukas has some growing up to do if he's going to be able to save the day. Bored by his bookish aged uncle, he sneaks off to meet up with Etienne and in doing so ends up associating with petty thieves and street scams. He's also seduced by the titular cabinet - rooms filled with the Emperor's valuable collection of wonders and jewels. He's even tempted to steal and this lapse is significant: the chain of events it sets in motion puts his uncle's future at risk as well as his own, and almost prevents him from foiling a plot against the Emperor himself.

It's pacy, with great characterisation, and rich with the most wonderful historical detail. Junior fans of historical fiction are going to love it.

My thanks to the nice people at Bloomsbury for sending the book.

Although The Cabinet of Curiosities isn't a fantasy novel, I think they'd also enjoy The Undrowned Child by Michelle Lovric, a magical historical fantasy set in Venice and featuring the world's saltiest mermaids. The Story of Cirrus Flux by Matthew Skelton might also appeal. From the same era we have A World Away by Pauline Francis, but our reviewer wasn't entirely impressed.

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